Rethinking the Agile Conversation: Focusing on Value, Alignment, and Expertise

By Simeon Smith
Principal Consultant and Transformation Practice Lead
25th January 2024

At Burendo, we’ve been exploring the following theme over the past couple of months: “Why is it still so hard to make Agile stick?”

One of the great things about the Burendo culture is that you can be disruptive, even controversial. So…

 

Is “making Agile stick” really the conversation we should be having? Over the past decade, I’ve actively steered clear of Agile terminology. It seems to have acquired a certain baggage, deterring people from engaging in the critical discussions. Too many self-proclaimed experts have peddled Agile as a panacea for all productivity woes in any organisational context. In my experience, the most productive organisations are the ones that talk about Agile the least (no scientific basis here, just a gut feeling).

It’s not that Agile at its core is flawed; rather, it has been burdened with more than it was initially intended for, distracting from its fundamental purpose. I firmly believe that the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is solid and continues to be relevant. Its value lies in its simplicity. It’s crucial to recognise that Agile does not need to be synonymous with Scrum or SAFe – these are distinct frameworks that have evolved from the Agile Manifesto. While certain aspects may align with your needs, expecting them to be a cure-all solution is a fallacy. One size never fits all. Even then, Agile is only part of the picture.

So, let’s imagine we stick to the Agile Manifesto, using its principles to guide the establishment and evolution of our methods. Let’s customise our Agile practices to suit our unique needs by blending elements from various frameworks, maybe even inventing new approaches. While our change process may feel incredibly efficient, the crucial question remains: does it generate value?

In my view, organisations struggling with Agile often share a common pattern – they neglect defining the value they seek to generate, fail to design their organisation around value creation, and overlook supporting their people to become experts in delivering that value. Following Scrum by the book might seem effective, but when dependencies exist across multiple teams, the impact of changes aren’t measured, and insights aren’t used to guide the next steps, you can only go so far. People can get so caught up in being great at a framework that it distracts them from the real opportunities to maximise their productivity.

It’s about going beyond rituals and frameworks, focusing on what truly matters – the impact and value your organisation, services and products create. Agile is a means to the end, not the end in itself. Instead of fixating on making Agile stick, let’s shift the conversation to making value creation stick.

 

Key books that have shaped my thinking:

 

Title Author What it’s about
The Lean Start-Up Eric Ries The Lean Startup provides a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster. The Lean Startup method teaches you how to drive a startup-how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere-and grow a business with maximum acceleration. It is a principled approach to new product development.

Why it’s useful

Even if you aren’t in a start-up or working with a greenfield product, you should use this method and philosophy to drive up innovation of your product at pace: build – measure – learn!

Lean UX Jeff Gothelf The book laid the groundwork for different ways that companies handle their UX process, and introduced a system that emphasizes the following:

  • Removing waste. The system seeks to cut through common, time-consuming tactics like frequent documentation by creating minimal viable products that drive learning quickly.
  • Constant collaboration. Lean UX brings together teams from “designers, developers, product managers, quality assurance engineers, marketers, and others” through frequent contact and communication (From Lean UX).
  • More experimentation. Designers leverage rapid experimentation with their designs to uncover more grounded information and lessons on their products.

Why it’s useful

Lean UX is not purely for designers, it’s a philosophy and method that is useful across professions involved in the delivery of products.

Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love Marty Cagan How do today’s most successful tech companies―Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Tesla―design, develop, and deploy the products that have earned the love of literally billions of people around the world? Perhaps surprisingly, they do it very differently than most tech companies. In INSPIRED, technology product management thought leader Marty Cagan provides readers with a master class in how to structure and staff a vibrant and successful product organization, and how to discover and deliver technology products that your customers will love―and that will work for your business.
Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams Richard Banfield

Martin Eriksson

Nate Walkingshaw

In today’s lightning-fast technology world, good product management is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage. Yet, managing human beings and navigating complex product roadmaps is no easy task, and it’s rare to find a product leader who can steward a digital product from concept to launch without a couple of major hiccups. Why do some product leaders succeed while others don’t?
The Phoenix Project Gene Kim Easy to read, fictional style covering the following themes:

  • The 4 Types of Work (business projects, internal projects, changes and unplanned work)
  • Work in Process (WIP)
  • Kanban
  • “10 Deployments per Day”
  • Theory of Constraints
  • The 3 Ways (continuous delivery improvement, fast feedback to pre-empt failures, and rapid experimentation)

Why it’s useful

Really useful take on maximising productivity that is relevant across professional roles.

Play Bigger Al Ramadan Today’s most exciting companies create categories. They sell us different — not just better. They solve a problem we didn’t even know we had. This is the real genius of Amazon, Salesforce, Uber, IKEA and others. They are category kings.

You can’t build a legendary new company without first building a substantial new category in the marketplace. To play bigger, you have to position yourself as the leader in that category — because you’re different — and then convince everyone that category is going to be a very big deal. You have to:

  • Develop a point of view — which explains why you exist and what you will do for the world.
  • Condition the market — help consumers understand which problem you solve for them.
  • Design an ecosystem — a community of supporters, partners, colleagues, evangelists.
  • Fire up a lightning strike — do something to shock the market and get attention.
  • Establish yourself and then keep expanding your category — build on your position and move outward and upward.

Why it’s useful

Though more in the start-up / scale-up space, really useful perspective around thinking about and overall product purpose – definition, understanding, roll-out, measurement and communication.

Team Topologies Manuel Pais

Mathew Skelton

Effective software teams are essential for any organization to deliver value continuously and sustainably. But how do you build the best team organization for your specific goals, culture, and needs?

Team Topologies is a practical, step-by-step, adaptive model for organizational design and team interaction based on four fundamental team types and three team interaction patterns. It is a model that treats teams as the fundamental means of delivery, where team structures and communication pathways are able to evolve with technological and organizational maturity.

Why it’s useful

Makes you think about what the value of your products and services are, and how to align your teams to maximise that value.

 

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